Spring Training is a time to prepare for a new season and compete for jobs. It's also a chance for young players, even those not quite big league ready, to make lasting impressions.
A strong showing in Spring Training can be a big confidence boost for a prospect, acting as a springboard to climb the last rung or two of the organizational ladder. It can also plant a seed in the minds of general managers and managers. If a strong spring is followed by progress in the Minor Leagues, that prospect's name can come up quickly when help is needed during the season.
Last year, Avisail Garcia played impromptu hero for the Tigers, starting the year in the Florida State League but finishing it on the Tigers' postseason roster. The young outfielder didn't get much playing time the previous spring, but he did go 2-for-7 with a double in his limited action.
Trevor Rosenthal was dominant for the Cardinals out of the bullpen late in 2012. Did Rosenthal open some eyes when he gave up just one run in seven innings of Grapefruit League work last spring? His performance certainly didn't hurt.
Don't be surprised if the Cardinals are once again at the forefront of getting major contributions from Minor Leaguers during the upcoming season. With one of the deepest systems in baseball, St. Louis has some impact talent at the upper levels, ready to help when the call arrives. Almost all of the pro scouting directors asked to name some second-half contributors mentioned at least one Cardinal, outfielder Oscar Taveras.
"Like Andruw Jones and Miguel Cabrera, this is a potential impact player who could have his initial coming-out party in the second half and on the postseason stage," one director said.
Taveras, the No. 3 prospect on MLB.com's Top 100 list, won't turn 21 until the middle of June. He's hit everywhere he's been and has always been one of the youngest players at his level. So no one expects him to seem out of place this spring, or whenever the call to the Majors eventually comes.
"I imagine they're going to be very difficult," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said of the decisions he'll have to make in sending some prospects down at the end of Spring Training. "You look at [Taveras'] pedigree and what he's accomplished, I don't think anyone will think it'll be an easy decision. It might be the right decision, just not an easy one.
"It's a good problem to have. We want our players to know that it may not be what they want to hear right now, but they'll get their opportunity."
Taveras isn't alone among Cardinals prospects. Right-hander Carlos Martinez, No. 33 on the Top 100, was also mentioned several times by scouts -- even if he ends up filling a Rosenthal or Shelby Miller-like bullpen role. Kolten Wong (No. 79) is yet another player who should get an opportunity at some point in 2013, while shortstop Greg Garcia is a more under-the-radar prospect who could be brought up by Mozeliak, be it at the start of the season or after some time in Triple-A.
"It's a credit to our scouting and player-development departments who get these players prepared," said Mozeliak, who also mentioned right-hander Michael Wacha, a 2012 first-round Draft pick and the No. 83-ranked prospect, as someone who, based on early returns this spring, could work his way into the conversation. "We're not afraid to give them opportunities at the Major League level. The I-55 corridor from Memphis to St. Louis is always open."
After Taveras, no prospect got more attention as a potential callup than the Reds' Billy Hamilton. The No. 11-ranked prospect's speed could impact the game right now. Given a little time to work on his offensive game and his new position in center field, the man who set a record with 155 steals in 2012 could be wreaking havoc on the bases in Cincinnati down the stretch.
The Rangers have a farm system that could rival that of the Cardinals, and as a result, a few of their players were mentioned by more than one scout. No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar, a player who several clubs would love to have in their Opening Day lineup, was an obvious choice. So was third baseman Mike Olt (No. 22). Yet without any apparent openings in the lineup, the infield duo will likely have to head to Triple-A and wait for the door to reopen. They could be joined by right-hander Cody Buckel (No. 87).
The Red Sox have a couple of hitters who could help down the stretch. One scouting director said that shortstop Xander Bogaerts (No. 20 overall) could have an impact like Manny Machado did with Baltimore in 2012. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (No. 32), whom many believe will take over in center field full-time in 2014, had a stunning first full season last year. He should be ready to play in the big leagues before next season.
The Tigers' Nick Castellanos is the other hitter who was brought up most in conversations with scouts. The No. 21 prospect could have a Garcia-esque effect on the Tigers' fortunes in 2013.
Relievers will receive plenty of attention this spring, though someone like No. 8-ranked prospect Zack Wheeler could be this year's Matt Harvey in the Mets rotation. A few pitchers who project to be starters could initially contribute out of a bullpen. The Braves' J.R. Graham, the No. 4 prospect on the Braves' Top 20 list, is prominent among them. He has the ability to start and the pure stuff and mentality to pitch late in games.
The list can go on and on. Outfielder Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi are expected to be up with Tampa Bay sooner rather than later. The July 31 Trade Deadline might be an exciting time for teams in the hunt, but there seems to be just as much chance that help can be found by promoting from within.
"When you're thinking about roster management and how you think about the fluidity of a season," Mozeliak said, "that's the thing that comes to mind for us, that's the main reason we put such an emphasis on our farm system, to create that depth."